A representative of the Humane Society Waterville Area bathes one of seven cats who survived after being abandoned in a locked storage container for 17 days. Credit: Lauren Kennedy | HSWA

BELFAST, Maine — A Maine woman convicted of locking a dozen cats inside a storage unit without food and water was banned this week from ever owning cats again.

Anna C. Elander, 67, of Knox will serve 20 days in jail for animal cruelty after pleading guilty to that charge in August.

The cats were discovered after another customer at the self-storage facility in Unity heard the animals in October 2018 and notified the property owner. Investigators found that the cats had been stuffed into three plastic dog crates inside the storage unit and left there.

Three were dead when they were discovered, one died soon after it was taken to the Humane Society Waterville Area and another was euthanized a couple of days later for medical reasons. Shelter staff dubbed the surviving animals the “Miracle Cats,” and worked for weeks to rehabilitate them and get them ready for adoption.

On Tuesday, Justice Robert Murray sentenced Elander to 364 days in jail, with all but 20 days suspended and beginning Jan. 3, 2020.

After she serves her time, she will be required to spend a year on probation. Elander’s probation conditions will require her to complete a mental health evaluation, counseling and treatment, perform 7.5 hours of public service, and pay a fine of $685. In addition to the ban on owning cats, she will be limited to owning no more than four dogs at a time.

If she violates her probation, she could be sent back to jail for the remainder of the sentence.

In a partial letter that was included in her court file, Elander seemed to explain what happened by saying that when she moved out of her house last year, she placed most of her belongings in the storage unit and her dogs in a boarding kennel. After her cats were banished from the rental for fighting, Elander said she planned to take them to the storage unit and care for them there until she could make other arrangements.

By the time the police discovered the cats and the Humane Society got involved, shelter staff members said they were in bad shape.

“The crates were filthy and matted with fur. The urine smell was so powerfully terrible we could almost taste it,” an official from the Humane Society Waterville Area said in a video posted on the group’s Facebook page last November. “They were all emaciated, hungry, exhausted, filthy with feces and urine — and silent.”

Elander was indicted in March on two charges connected to the incident — a Class C charge of aggravated cruelty to animals and a Class D charge of cruelty to animals. The more serious charge, which was ultimately dismissed, included a penalty of up to five years imprisonment and a fine of as much as $5,000.

In 2018, the Animal Legal Defense Fund ranked Maine’s animal protection laws third strongest in the nation. Only Illinois and Oregon had stronger laws to protect animals from cruelty.